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Carol Rama Appassionata FD 211 Photographic Credit
Carol Rama / The New Museum

The fearless cult painter who dealt in sin, torment and sex

Carol Rama’s retrospective exhibition at the New Museum in NYC is incredible – here we publish the late artist’s thoughts about her life and work in her own words

Inside The Mind’ is a series revealing how the world’s artists, radicals and activists saw their life and their work – all communicated in their own words.

For most of her life, Italian artist Carol Rama was cruelly overlooked by the art world. Born in 1918 and dying in 2015 aged 97, she amassed an enormous canon of work, created over several decades in a state of deliberate insanity, once saying “I am truly a premeditated lunatic... mine is a trained folly”. She knew this was the truest way to be an artist. Her watercolour paintings, made in the 1930s are terrifying, funny and delirious, gross depictions of sex and trauma – women giving birth to serpents, wheelchair-bound or bed-strapped patients and regular portrayals of bestiality.

Rama says she was happy and secure until the age of 8, when she became “a kid scared of existence”, after the security of her middle class upbringing in Turin collapsed around her. A global economic crisis placed enormous strain on the family and forced them into poverty – her father’s business crumbled and her mother ended up in an asylum, something that Rama says, understandably, had a profound effect on her.

“When I was twelve years old I went almost every day to a psychiatric clinic to see someone, and there a great happiness was born because I didn’t understand that I was in a madhouse environment and the freedom I found in these people with their tongues sticking out, their legs apart or crouching down or in some other position: by now any person was more important than my family, I had abdicated and as it were renounced it. That’s where my early works originated from.”

Despite the asylum visits inspiring her first forays into painting, art school would prove to be of no interest and she soon dropped out, instead preferring to traverse Turin’s toilets and its underworld, searching for the thrill of sex.

“I went around to all my friends. There I found the shits, the idiots. The idiots who were making a piece of furniture, a paper glued to the wall. And they always used to make me do sketches in the servants’ toilet, because it was sexy. There was always a vagina and a dick, a vagina and a dick, or a urinal, or a sink. There was always a chair where the guy with the wide legs used to watch films, but he was excited. That’s why he had his legs wide. And I enjoyed myself doing these things.”

In 1945, Rama’s debut solo show in Turin was shut down by police on account of its obscenity. Seen now as an art rebel, she would go on to hold more shows in Italy throughout her career, her characters all beautiful monsters designed to reject the norms imposed by Mussolini and his fascist regime.

Antibodies is the the Carol Rama exhibition currently on at the New Museum in New York. It’s a breathtaking walkthrough of her fearless work, a collection of paintings that transports you straight into someone’s thrillingly crazy mind. On entrance you are greeted with these words:

“I didn’t have any models for my painting. I didn’t need any, having already four or five disasters in the family, six or seven tragic love stories, an invalid in the house, my father who committed suicide at age fifty-two because he had become poor and been made bankrupt and no longer had the life he wanted, and I, it’s very sad, felt his guilt. They’re all things that were enough for me to have subjects to work on. I didn’t have any painters as masters, the sense of sin is my master”.

It’s a formidable start and one that leaves you with no room to misinterpret what Rama was all about and from where she drew her inspiration. Here, we celebrate her life and work in her own words and get inside her mind.

ON THE COLOUR BLACK

“Black is the colour that will help me to die. I’d like to paint everything black, it’s a kind of incineration, a kind of wonderful agony”.

ON FLOWERS AND FALSE TEETH

“At home we had an aunt who had had all her teeth pulled out by the vet when she was a girl. She always wore a set of false teeth, even as a kid. Since there were all these false teeth lying around, I was always drawing them. I preferred my aunt’s false teeth to any flower. I hate flowers, really hate them, perhaps because they are more beautiful than my paintings, than me. It’s mainly anger inside me”.

ON THE BODY

“I seek to improve the body, and give joy and meaning also to those that are deformed. In debased, diseased bodies I was looking for a spark, a flash of vitality, a desire, even obscene, to exist. Are you living in hell? Well, try to make the most of it, even there”.

ON WARHOL AND MAN RAY

“Warhol is very clear-sighted, an extraordinary mind, a person not at all easy to fathom, a crafted persona, elusive. Man Ray I think people understood far too late. Angry as a hunted animal, he was an exquisite person too. I remember him as melancholic”.

ON DEATH AND ANXIETY

“As soon as I feel happy I think of death. You can live without fear only up to the age of twenty, after that only if you’re an idiot. Anxiety, on the other hand, is quite a trip: you see a good-looking man, you feel anxiety; you see a good-looking woman, damn it that’s not me, shit how unfair, and you feel anxiety. But I’m not talking about anxiety, about longings maybe; for that matter, that’s as far as they go. What can I say, I’ve always worn the things my friends gave me. If Daphne Casorati made me a present of a suit, I’d make an evening gown out of the skirt and fashion a coat out of the jacket. But that’s ok, I don’t care, I can dress like a bum, it’s fine by me.

ON MADNESS

“My pictures will appeal very much to people who’ve suffered, and who because of their suffering haven’t been able to cope... because having had a mother in a psychiatric clinic and having felt at home myself in that environment... because I started there like that, having some gestures and some manners without any train-ing either in culture or etiquette... I think everyone will love those gestures most, because they’re gestures that, for reasons I don’t dare mention, belong to everybody... because madness is close to everybody... and there are some who absolutely deny madness... and anyone who denies it is only a madman, melancholic, sad, unapproachable... because it’s like culture; culture is a privilege, I could have done it too... but I’ve always felt more amenable to drawing, to a picture, to a story, to a composition.”

ON BROWN AND SHIT

“Brown is the colour of shit, which is the colour I like best, first and foremost because when I shit I have the impression I feel really good, but it’s probably not true. And when I use this colour in my pictures it gives me the same pleasure as when I shit. Brown, like black, is a colour I adore. I’d roll in brown. It makes me satisfied with the almost daily negative memories of my life, of my past, of my fear of the future, they are always covered in brown. I like it very much but I am afraid it isn’t a colour that is generally appreciated. I believe I’m the only one to think it’s fantastic”.

ON BEING A WOMAN

“Part of what being a woman means is really feeling a need to work, having incredible vitality, constantly having wishes that it does not even occur to men to have. Having a rage so deep and so controlled that it stirs an anger that never ends”.

ON SEX

“Sex depends on where it is – in the head, in the body, in one’s desires, if it needs to be aroused. It depends on the role it plays. Sex isn’t just an organ that emits what it has to emit. It also has to express, but that’s hard. Very, very hard”.